Monday, September 8, 2014

Nurture Your Inner Outliner

With die hard pantsers on the far left hand of the scale and hardcore plotters on the far right, chances are you fall somewhere in between. I want to start out this post by saying that whatever amount of pantsing or plotting you do, if it works for you, you’re in good shape.

This is NOT a post about the RIGHT way to get a story started, because a right way doesn’t exist. If you poll 100 writers about their process, you’ll get 100 different answers as evidenced by the My Writing Process Blog Tour.

Click here to read about how our own RW’s do it. And click here if you want to check out how hundreds of other authors get there stories rolling.

If you haven’t landed on a process that works for you and you’ve wanted to try plotting more seriously, this post might help with that. Or at the very least, it may give you some ideas that you can take in your own direction.

So here’s a little about me and my pantser-wishing-I-were-a-plotter woes.

I’ve been a plotter wannabe for a long time, because for me, pantsing has led to a lot of rewriting. I happen to be one of those folks who loves revision with the burning intensity of a thousand suns. But drafting? Meh. It’s hard for me translate ideas into actual words. Ideas are big. Words are tiny, and you need a lot of them to complete a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, my love for words rivals my love for Christmas, and coffee, and chocolate combined. It’s just that my preference leans toward making them pretty during revision. Andplusalso, I have a hard time turning off my internal editor, which can make the drafting phase slower than it needs to be. I recently tweeted this and it's something I have to remind myself of often.

Another thing I love is story structure. At first I thought, I can just keep all this structure stuff in my head while I trail blaze a first draft, but the more I learned about structure, the more I realized how directly related it is to having a sold plot BEFORE I begin to write. I guess sometimes I need to learn my lessons the hard way. But before I dive into the details of how I plotted my new WIP, here's a few things that changing my process has helped with:

  • Working out a solid story structure
  • Visual representation of events timeline and whether they are feasible or require adjusting (this one was a biggie)
  • Staggering reveals and plot twists for maximum impact (another biggie)
  • Setting up reveals and twists with appropriate foreshadowing
  • Ensure subplots are organically woven throughout the entire story
  • Connecting plot threads
  •  Discovering gaps in logic
  •  Uncovering plot holes before they turn into problems
  •  Creating strong character arcs
  • Identifying weak spots and making them stronger
  •  Establishing strong GMC’s (goals, motivation, conflicts) for every character
  • Can efficiently draft out of sequence, because I know what needs to happen in every scene and how they’re connected (yet another biggie)
  • Will *hopefully* minimize the necessity for major rewrites during revision

This list is by no means all-inclusive, but those are some of the really big issues that plotting allowed me to tackle up front. Now, let’s get on to the main event.

I’ve always wanted to use index cards and create a grandiose storyboard, but kept stalling out because writing in actual ink seemed too permanent when I knew things were going to change. I did some research and tried out several online cork boards. The two I like the best are Spaaze and Popplet.

Both are free, easy to use, and have excellent features. I ended up using Popplet because it’s simple and I didn’t want designing the board to draw focus away from designing my plot. With Popplet, you create little bubbles that can be connected together. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

So here's what I did. AKA The Process
(At the bottom of this section, there’s a pic of what the *mostly* final board looks like)

Step 1) I wrote a few sentences about each scene I knew would be in the book. Each scene got its own little bubble. 

I’m a fan of 3 Act structure, because it gives me a reference for where things need to happen and keeps the story pacing on target. For instance, if I’m shooting for a 70K word novel, I want the first act to take approximately ¼ of my total word count, which brings me to:

Step 2) I created 4 new bubbles: ACT 1, ACT 2 Part 1, ACT 2 Part 2, and ACT 3. Then I sorted my scene bubbles beside the act I felt they would fall into.

I also really like the Save the Cat beat sheet. Just like with using 3 Act structure, Blake Snyder’s beat sheet helps me pace reveals and plot points so they are staggered throughout each act. Writer and blogger Jamie Gold has an awesome downloadable beat sheet, which she adjusted for novel writers. (Plus she has bunch of other goodies there as well, so you should totally check it all out.)

Step 3) I created new bubbles for each beat I wanted to hit in the book and used them as headers, connecting them with the scenes I’d already included.

At this stage, I didn’t have enough ‘beat’ scenes written yet. This was my first clue that had I already started writing, I’d be missing essential story elements that I wanted to include. I was thrilled to discover this now instead of later.

Step 4) Filled in the remaining beats with new scenes.

Step 5) Evaluated the big picture with a focus on the timeline of events and reordered and/or added new scenes in order to create a realistic timeline. 

Ex: there’s a section of the story where the POV character needs to write and receive a series of letters. It’s a day and a half journey one way from sender to receiver, and I realized that in my budding outline I had letters coming and going WAY too quickly. She was receiving replies to her correspondence before her letter could have reached its reader. This could have been a giant problem had I figured this out after completing the first draft. I got off my butt and happy danced over discovering and fixing this issue ahead of time.

Step 6) I looked at scenes that were weak. These said something vague like: Two days pass leading up to (event) and MC is upset about X. I fleshed these out into actual scenes and found that these were good spots to advance the subplot, which at that point was still pretty light.

Step 7) Checked all major plot points, reveals, pinch points, and twists were evenly spaced and adjusted where necessary. (And oh, there was lots of adjusting)

Step 8) Once the main plot, sub plot, and timeline were solid and evenly paced, I considered other details like where more foreshadowing was needed in order to build to certain reveals, and I added notes about which scenes could support that info.

Step 9) A little estimating is required here. I evaluated each scene and decided whether it was enough to support an entire chapter or whether it needed to be connected with the scene beside it. Knowing about how long my chapters run and my aim for the final word count of this book, I estimated needing at least thirty chapters to get me to The End.  I was close, but needed a little more and spent some time seeing what could be added to either make new scenes or flesh out existing scenes into standalone chapters.

*When I was finished and ready to move onto phase two, my Popplet looked like this:

(Note 1: yes, Act 3 is empty. Endings are my nemesis and I simply cannot fully plot them out in advance. So even though I’m hardcore plotting this book, there will still be some pantsing involved.)

(Note 2: this process took about a week to complete

Step 10) I did this part in MS Word due to a heartbreaking loss of work in Scrivener that I haven’t completely recovered from. *wipes away fresh tears*

Personally, I’m not good at working with two documents. Now that I had everything plot-wise setup, I wanted to transfer it to my working document. If you’re working in Word, the navigation pane is your best friend. Learn it, live it, love it. For reals. If you’re not familiar with the navigation pane, there are lots of tutorials out there. Bottom line is that you need to use headers to make it work for you. Doing this allows you to jump around your document without wearing out your mouse’s scroll bar.

I modified my heading styles to look like this

New Act’s are heading 1, all standard chapters are heading 2, a plot point or pinch point chapter is header 3 or 4 respectively, and my outline and any other documents notes I add are heading 5.
Then I typed in my Act numbers and chapter headers in their appropriate headings, and then copied and pasted each scene from Popplet under the chapter it belongs with. When that was done, my navigation pane looked like this:

 Setting up the document this way makes moving around it easier, which is a huge time saver once the word count begins adding up. Pasting each scene from Popplet into Word was a bit tedious, however in long run, I’m glad I did it. I can click on anything in the navigation pane and jump straight to that section. When I get there, I know exactly what I need to write about. 

I’d never written out of order before, because as a pantser, I had only a bleary idea of what would happen a scene or two past what I was currently working on. This time, I felt confident skipping from chapter 7 to chapter 20, because my outline is solid and I’ve already justified the inclusion of every single scene.

I'm finding the freedom to work on any story section I choose is incredibly freeing. Some days, an emotion-heavy scene might be right up my alley, but on another day, I’m too drained to dig as deep as that sort of scene demands. Now I have options, and my word count is increasing much faster than when I my only choice was to write scenes in order.

Aaaand, that’s it. I’ll just add a quick shout out to a few of my favorite books on plot and structure. Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. And lastly, K.M. Weiland’s entire blog, but especially her Structuring Your Scenes series, which is ah-fricken-mazing.

I know this was a long post, and I appreciate you guys sticking with me. I hope you found something in here that’s helpful. Now go forth and write all the words!


  1. I LOVE THIS! You've given me so much great information! I'm going to check out Spaaze and Popplet! I've tried outlining and pantsering and just can't decide which I like better. Ideas definitely flow for me if I'm going along without an outline, but those words don't always add up to a well-plotted story! ;)

  2. This is seriously one of the best posts I've read about outlining. I'm very excited to jump over to Popplet and begin. Thanks so much for sharing!